Unequal pay may have been the breaking point for members of the U.S. women’s national soccer team in its lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation, but there were underlying feelings long before the “unbelievable” language was used in a filing in the lawsuit, Megan Rapinoe said.

In an interview with the American Civil Liberties Union’s “At Liberty” podcast, the leader and star of the women’s team expressed amazement at what was revealed in the lawsuit, scheduled to go to trial in California in early May. In a filing, the federation claimed: “The overall soccer-playing ability required to compete at the senior men’s national team level is materially influenced by the level of certain physical attributes. Such as speed and strength, required for the job.” Saying that a male player requires “a higher level of skill” than a female player and the men have “more responsibility” than the women, the filing created a storm that cost Carlos Cordeiro, the head of the federation, his job.

“I think I found out online, I’m sure, just like everyone else,” Rapinoe said in the interview, recorded Friday. “And I don’t think I had, you know, read the brief yet. It’s just incredibly disappointing. … We sort of felt the sentiments, but to know that they would use that in plain language in public is just unbelievable. Like, this is an organization and a federation that is charged with growing the game of soccer and, you know, stewards of the game of soccer for all people in this country. And to say that, I mean, it’s unbelievable to say that you believe that half of the people when it comes to soccer are just inherently less than the other half, to use that argument.”

Cordeiro claimed he had not fully read the filings and apologized upon his exit, but athletes, who are seeking $67 million in damages in the lawsuit, were incensed. Last month, the U.S. Soccer Federation’s latest tax form showed a significant, if narrowing, pay gap between the head coaches of senior national teams with differing levels of success. The U.S. men have not advanced past the World Cup’s round of 16 since 2002, with the number of fully invested programs in the men’s game dwarfing the women’s game. The path to a World Cup berth is more difficult for them, but the women’s team packs stadiums and has won the World Cup four times, including back-to-back in 2015 and 2019.

Still, the playing field is uneven.

“The sentiment and the feeling has been felt for a long time, which is probably one of the reasons that we’ve gotten ourselves to this point of filing a gender discrimination lawsuit,” Rapinoe said. “We’ve felt the undertones of sexism and misogyny. We felt the undertones of, you know, not feeling as valued or not even seeing the potential in the team in the same way that the potential of the men’s team on and off the field has been felt.”

Rapinoe has been an outspoken leader off the field as well as an energetic force on it. An LGBTQ activist, she was one of the first athletes to kneel during the national anthem in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick in 2016 and did not shy away from expressing her disapproval of President Trump, saying in plain language that she would not visit the White House after the team won the World Cup in July in France.

“As soon as I saw what [Kaepernick] was doing, it just made sense to me. It just clicked like, oh, yes, of course. And then immediately I was like, ‘Okay, can I do anything?’ Obviously, as an athlete, I have games. I go through the national anthem. I just thought that, similar to the times as a gay female athlete or just as a female athlete, that I’ve asked people to stand with me and be my ally,” she said. “I thought that it’s the very least that I can do to stand with Colin and try to bring this conversation maybe to a different subset of people or at least, you know, amplify the conversation and the message that he was trying to get across with his kneeling.”

Rapinoe thanked Kaepernick, who has not played in the NFL since the 2016 season after his protest to raise awareness of social inequality and police brutality, when she won a woman of the year award this past fall, and she will continue to speak up. She was unafraid to go toe-to-toe with Trump during last year’s World Cup, and in the years since he took office, she has been at the forefront of athletes who have made it known they’re displeased with his administration. She has said she considers him to be “sexist,” “misogynistic,” “small-minded,” “racist” and “not a good person.” Rapinoe’s feelings are also rooted in her advocacy for gay rights.

“Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties,” Rapinoe told John D. Halloran of American Soccer Now, explaining why she took a knee in 2016. “It was something small that I could do and something that I plan to keep doing in the future and hopefully spark some meaningful conversation around it.”

So it was no surprise when she criticized the International Olympic Committee’s decision to ban kneeling, hand gestures or “any political messaging” at the Tokyo Olympics.

“Nobody’s ever liked any form of protest whatsoever, peaceful or otherwise. So what if we put all of our energy towards what the message actually is, what the message of Colin Kaepernick was, what the message of Muhammad Ali was, the message of Tommie Smith and John Carlos [who raised their fists on the medal podium at the 1968 Games], you know, all of these athletes who have so courageously stuck their neck out,” she said in the ACLU podcast. “Imagine if we had people in the room who were trying to find a solution. And for these governing bodies, the IOC, maybe they should talk to the countries that are committing the human rights abuses that people are then protesting about.

“… I don’t think they’re going to see any less protests because of it. That’s for sure.”

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